February 11, 2010 9:26:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Now is the time for separation.
Eleven years ago, the Mississippi State women''s basketball was 4-5 and right in the middle of the Southeastern Conference pack with five league games remaining.
The Lady Bulldogs went 3-2 down the stretch of the regular season to finish 7-7 in the SEC. The showing helped MSU, which went on to finish 17-11, earn its first bid to the NCAA tournament.
The 2009-10 SEC season has a lot of similarities to the 1998-99 season.
Entering this week, MSU, South Carolina, Georgia, and Vanderbilt are 6-5 and tied for fifth in the SEC behind Tennessee (9-1), Kentucky (8-2) and Florida and Ole Miss, who are 6-4.
The standings figure to start to sort themselves out at 6 tonight when MSU (15-9) visits South Carolina (13-10). A victory tonight for the Lady Bulldogs would give them the tiebreaker against the Gamecocks if the teams finish the regular season tied. It also would help keep them at least tied with Vanderbilt and Georgia, two teams MSU also has the tiebreaker on.
With games remaining against Ole Miss, Auburn, Alabama, and LSU, MSU needs to earn as many victories as possible to stay close to the top four and to strengthen its case for a bid to the NCAA tournament.
A second consecutive bid to the NCAA tournament would be the just the third time in MSU''s history that the Lady Bulldogs have accomplished that feat.
To do it, the journey likely will start in Columbia, S.C., against a surprising South Carolina team that is coming off a victory at Georgia on Sunday.
MSU enters tonight''s game coming off an 82-80 double overtime loss Sunday at Florida. The loss allowed the Gators to sweep the season series from the Lady Bulldogs. That loss could be critical because Florida likely would be behind MSU in the pecking order for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament if the season ended today.
But with five regular-season games and the SEC tournament on March 4-7 in Duluth, Ga., remaining, teams still have a little time to make their moves.
MSU coach Sharon Fanning-Otis doesn''t want the Lady Bulldogs to waste any more time, especially after a disappointing loss to Florida in which he team had a 12-point lead in the second half and numerous opportunities to win the game.
"I was just disappointed in our defense," Fanning-Otis said. "As we got further into the game we were not guarding ball screens, we were not anticipating, and we were not helping. We knew who we had to guard. We had numerous bad shots and numerous defensive possessions where we didn''t block out."
Alexis Rack also remained in a shooting slump. The senior guard was 3 of 21 from the field (2 of 17 from 3-point range) and slipped to 10 of 60 (6 of 37) in the past three games. The slide comes on the heels of a 34-point effort that saw her go 9 of 17 (7 of 10) from the field Jan. 28 in an upset of Georgia.
Rack continues to lead the Lady Bulldogs in scoring (19.2 points per game), but Fanning-Otis knows her best player has to snap out of her funk because she sets the tone for the rest of the team.
Rack''s ability to lead her teammates will be key tonight against South Carolina and second-year coach Dawn Staley. The former Temple University coach and United States Olympian has the Gamecocks playing stingy basketball. They are 7-2 at home this season and are third in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage (36.9 percent).
Junior Valerie Nainima, a transfer from Long Island University, leads the team in scoring (17.7 ppg.), while 6-foot-5 freshman center Kelsey Bone averages 14.5 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, which is second best in the league.
"South Carolina is a team that plays exceptionally hard and well together," Fanning-Otis said. "They are a team we''re going to have to guard hard. They have balance and good experience."
Fanning-Otis said rebounding and shot selection will be even more important tonight and in the final four games of the regular season to help the Lady Bulldogs regain their rhythm.
The return of senior guard/forward Tysheka Grimes, who missed the first 10 SEC games with a foot injury, in the loss to Florida on Sunday should bolster MSU''s depth as she regains her conditioning.
Until then, Fanning-Otis will continue to expect her team to improve and to play together.
"There are several teams in this league that are in a position to go the NCAA tournament and to finish in the top four in this league, and we''re one of them," Fanning-Otis said. "We have to play that way -- to win -- and we have to play focused and to do the little things and be consistent. Right now it should be a steady rise on the way up, whereas every day we get tougher and we get better."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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